It was a busy Halloween weekend in New Orleans, with tourism officials reporting 99 percent hotel occupancy for Saturday night, Oct. 29. The 11th annual Voodoo Experience drew tens of thousands to City Park for three days of music. Residents in eastern New Orleans held the Friends Festival, a two-day, all-ages celebration in Joe Brown Park inspired by Mayor Mitch Landrieu's September crime summit. The Krewe of MOMS held its annual Halloween Ball — always a place for spectacular costuming. The Women of Class Social Aid and Pleasure Club threw a Sunday afternoon second line with help from one of the city's brightest young ensembles, the TBC Brass Band. On Halloween night, kids took to the streets for trick-or-treating with their parents (among them, Drew Brees, who took his role as a trick-or-treat dad seriously and dressed as a centurion). All of it was largely peaceful, creative and filled with the New Orleans spirit that makes us all proud.
Then, later Halloween night, things went downhill fast. Within 10 hours, five horrific acts of gun violence erupted in the waning hours of a wonderful weekend. In one incident on Canal Street, a gunman fired 32 times. In all, the gunfire wounded 16 people, seven of them at the corner of Bourbon and St. Louis streets — just two blocks from the NOPD's 8th District station. Two victims died.
Here's another unhappy number: The next morning, more than 500 stories about New Orleans appeared in the national news — and they weren't about the costumes or the parades. "16 Shot, 2 Fatally, on Halloween in New Orleans," was the headline on ABC News, which, like many media, mentioned "gunfire on Bourbon Street, the tourist hot spot in the French Quarter."
Mayor Mitch Landrieu, NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas and city crime commissioner James Carter quickly called a press conference. Landrieu reiterated his belief that New Orleans crime has reached "epidemic proportions," and Serpas assured residents, "Our police department is not sitting on its hands." Both men once again called for a "holistic" approach to healing our broken city, with investment in youth, mentoring and other planks that are part of Landrieu's Save Our Sons initiative.
They're not wrong about long-term solutions to crime, but New Orleans doesn't have years to wait. We need short-term solutions as well, and we need them now. At the press conference, Serpas mentioned that NOPD had more than 100 officers in the French Quarter and on Bourbon and Canal streets when the shootings occurred. Clearly, putting cops on the street doesn't deter violence, though it undoubtedly makes many people feel safer. Then again, tens of thousands of locals and visitors regularly cut loose outside the Superdome on Saints game days without random violence erupting — and without a show of force by NOPD. The message there may be that circumstances and surroundings matter.
After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans spent millions improving Canal Street with new lighting, sidewalks and streetcar stops. The Downtown Development District has also given parts of the CBD a facelift. It's therefore baffling why the city treats the 100 blocks of Bourbon, Royal and Chartres streets as an afterthought. There are decent businesses on all these blocks, but — as anyone who's brought out-of-town friends and family into the Vieux Carre surely knows — the first blocks off Canal Street are some of the most unwelcoming in the Quarter, with boarded-up storefronts, uneven lighting and often aggressive panhandling.
New Orleans is preparing to show off its assets in a series of major events. The Sugar Bowl and BCS National Championship will be played in the Superdome in early January. The NCAA Final Four is coming to town next March and April, and in February 2013 our city once again will host the Super Bowl. The eyes of the world will be upon us, and hundreds of thousands of people will experience New Orleans in person, some for the first time. Cleaning up the doorway to the French Quarter — improving streetlights, undertaking beautification projects and encouraging rather than discouraging talented street musicians to play there — may not solve crime, but it surely will help make things better for both visitors and New Orleanians who work in what should be the safest place in the city.